As I watched ‘Hotel Rwanda’ a few days ago, I saw Sophie Okonedo’s tears fall and thought of how I’d like to dry them. ‘Beautiful woman, superb acting’, were the thoughts that crossed my mind about this lady with a Nigerian name but who was raised in Britain. After the movie and as I contemplated the historical accuracy or otherwise of the actions depicted, my mind drifted back to our very own Nollywood.Reputed to be the third biggest movie industry in the world, and only surpassed by America’s Hollywood and the Indian Bollywood, Nigeria’s movie industry has clawed its way into recognition whether for good or bad.
Some claim that the American columnist who was the originator of the name used it in a somewhat derogatory manner, but what did that matter to Nigerians? They held on to the name and made it theirs.
Its origin as a concerted organization was said to have come about somewhat accidentally- Traders who sought ways of disposing VHS video cassettes they frequently imported into the country devised a manner of adding value to their product. They simply placed a movie on the empty tapes and were able to sell the end product at ten times the price they would have sold the blank tapes . In this manner, a movie industry was born. With an axis spanning the crowded markets of Idumota in Lagos to the seamy streets of Aba, Nollywood gradually became a force to be reckoned with in the country and eventually in Africa.
Defying all norms and rules of movie creation, individual producers churned (and still do to date) films out on a weekly basis. The fact that a De Niro or Tom Hanks would spend half a year getting into character meant little or nothing to the Nollywood producers. The budget of Nigerian movies might range anywhere from a million naira (£ 4000) to ten million naira but the essence is speed and if quality is sacrificed on the alter of expediency, tough luck then.
These marketers/producers mostly of Ibo origin (the eastern part of Nigeria) became the Aaron Spellings of Nollywood, able to dictate who appeared in their movies and made or broke stars at will. Some of the earliest Nollywood stars were Fred Amata, Segun Arinze, St. Obi, Pete Edochie, Ego Boyo, Keppy Ekpeyong, Bob Manuel Udokwu, Enebeli Elebuwa, Shan George, Kanayo O. Kanayo, Ngozi Nwozu, Funlola Aofiyebi, Clarion Chukwura. Richard Mofe Damijo, Kate Henshaw, Eucaharia Anonobi, Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde, Joke Silva, Liz Benson, Olu Jacobs, Kenneth Okonkwo, Dolly Unachukwu, Larry Koldsweat, Alex Usifo, Sola Fosudo, Francis Duru, Charles Okafor, Basorge Tariah Jnr, Ramsey Nouah, Remi Abiola and several others.
Directors such as Amaka Igwe, Chico Ejiro, Zeb Ejiro, Kingsley Ogoro and Tade Ogidan also held their ground in the early days of this industry.
Of note is the female director, Amaka Igwe who brought skills honed from television directing into her movies. Producing hits such as Rattle Snake and Violated in Nollywood’s earliest days, Other directors like Ogidan followed with their own successes such as Out of Bounds. Some other massive successes in the early days were Nneka the Pretty Serpent, Onome and Living in Bondage.
However, one must not forget the thriving Yoruba (the natives of the Western part of Nigeria) film industry that existed before the advent of Nollywood. The Yorubas produced their movies in their own language having long identified their market. They had their own stars such as Jide Kosoko, Sola Sobowale, Yinka Quadri, Dele Odule and a host of others like “Iya Rainbow, Toyin Tomato, Ogogo, Baba Suwe, Mr. Latin, Aderupoko, Ajigi jaga a.k.a. Broken Bottle, who were only known by their nicknames and traits that they used in movie after movie. They had found their niche and until the Ibo producers made their move, they existed quietly and prospered. The entry of the Ibo producers caused, after a while, a cross-over phenomenon which encouraged artistes from one genre (English movies) to perform in the Yoruba movies and vice-versa. After a while, there was a blur of the lines that demarcated them and Nollywood became one body with subsections.
Gradually, producers in the industry learnt the habit of making films in 2 or 3 parts. An inane movie that buyers had managed to endure till the ‘bitter’ end would have the graphics “Watch out for Part II” at its unresolved finish line. The Nigerian sequel was born and movies would be made with parts II and III already done before even the first part was released. Pete Edochie and his cohorts would dance for 19 minutes in a movie (I timed this once) , aimlessly shuffling from foot to foot, “spraying” cash at the host of the party until the movie ran long enough to deserve a part II.
The Nigerian Stereotype was born too, the security guard who had to display imbecilic traits, the poor man who would go through incredible mind-numbing suffering before finally making it big, the daughter of a fabulously rich business man who would refuse to marry anyone but the poor downtrodden man she met accidentally while she stood by the roadside changing tyres, the spoilt brat who misuses his father’s wealth… the examples are many and almost without fail, each movie must bear the stamp of several stereotypes. At the dénouement (or climax, to the less literary inclined), all would be resolved, the evil doer would drop dead, be arrested, exiled etc while the eternal sufferer would finally become successful, live in a great big house with new found wealth and shake his head in bafflement at how so much wickedness could have been undeservedly meted out to him by the bad men.
Africans are a people who love the “…and they all lived happily ever after” end and it might explain the runaway success of Nigerian movies along the West Coast of Africa where they are in great demand.
Even with the recognition of this industry by the Government of Nigeria and with the mega star status accorded to its key players, the problems that trouble Nollywood are many.
Firstly there is an obvious shortage of good scripts. The outcome of many movies here can be predicted after the first ten minutes. If the overly descriptive theme song doesn’t let the cat out of the bag, the wearisome plodding of the plot and language would be sure to put an end to any doubts. There have been instances of actors being interviewed who had spoken of how they changed their lines in scripts ‘to make them better’, trusting in their own scripting abilities and thereby throwing away cues other supporting actors could use. Notable cases are Pete Edochie, Nkem Owoh and Patience Ozorkwo.
The lack of ease many script writers have with the English language is obvious. Lines are laborious, often overdone or otherwise inane. The English translations put up in Yoruba movies are often a comedy of errors on their own.
Supporting characters are often not developed fully, causing disconcertion in viewers after an abrupt change in behaviour by an otherwise sedate character, making one wonder if the character has a multiple personality disorder or schizophrenia.
Nollywood is also yet to come to grips with drama as a movie form. Often, ‘thrillers’ can be handled well, policemen chasing criminals on empty roads with the odd gun shot sometimes ringing out, but when it comes to pure dialogue steering a movie, Nollywood is totally adrift. There have been exceptions to the rule like Patrick Doyle’s “The Gardener” but these are few and far between.
Technology is not put to good use in Nollywood. The editing of movies are not always done with finesse, while lighting and sound engineering on film sets are not always as well managed as they could be. Indoor scenes are often poorly lit with shadows thrown in the wrong places while sound is also not always properly engineered. That, however is not a problem peculiar to the movie industry in Nigeria alone. The Nigerian Television Authority programmes have very poor sound and the lighting done by its technicians have the harshest effect on those supposed to be the objects to be lit.
Another point is the lack of attention to detail. A scrawny medical doctor would appear on the corridors of a hospital outfitted in a mismatched and oversized suit wearing dusty shoes, proclaiming a death sentence on some patient. One can always tell when an underfed extra has just been handed a jacket to wear and a stethoscope to place around his neck. These characters appear shaky and would often be more suitable for psychotic vagrants roaming the streets of Lagos.
The industry has however thrown up a lot of modern day African stars like Kate Henshaw-Nuttal, Stella Damassus-Aboderin, Bimbo Akintola, Genevieve Nnaji, Jim Iyke and many others.
The producers, the same group of former electronics sellers in Idumota and Aba have also become a cartel in themselves, able to impose total bans on actors they feel are charging exorbitant fees or are displaying inappropriate “I’m a Star” behaviour. Nkem Owoh, Genevieve, Richard Mofe-Damijo, Omotola and Jim Iyke were all earning close to or about a million per movie, not much by some standards in the Western World but if you figure they were sometimes running 3 movies monthly, it was a tidy sum. The producers placed bans on them ranging from a year to two for inappropriate behaviour. The producers never admitted to the ban but everyone knew it was enforced. It caused Jim and Omotola to set up separate organizations supposedly for youth development, to keep themselves busy and also compelled Owoh, Omotola and Genevieve to release songs on separate labels. Owoh’s song, “I go chop your dollar” which extolled the righteousness of the Advance Fee Fraud (419) peculiar to Nigeria was banned on Nigerian radio and TV and used by an ABC report on American TV as a pointer to the propensity of the average Nigerian to commit fraud.
That ban permitted fresh faces like Rita Dominic and Desmond Elliot to achieve “A -List” status and opened the movie market to new actors.
Nollywood must be careful it does not run out of steam or fresh ideas. The Americans show movies from 50 years back, the Indians have perfected the art of producing perennial best-sellers while the Chinese have also made it a habit of producing Oscar-nominated movies, but Nollywood still searches for a breakthrough.
Nollywood must seek to rectify its faults. The impression that the industry is ranked 3rd in the world might be somewhat misleading. The Nigerian industry is nowhere near the Indian industry in the quality of work that is produced. It might be wise for producers to start concentrating on improving on technical details so a legacy can be left behind. Nigerian movies in their present state cannot win Oscars in any category at this time. A serious re-appraisal of all facets of the industry might propel it forward into the present century.
The way it is now, Nollywood must be careful that it does not fulfill the prophecy of reversal given by a well-known newspaper columnist who looked hard at the industry and proclaimed- "From Nollywood to Nothing-wood".